A Battalion Apart

Tales of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the Ric-A-Dam-Doo

For 100 years, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry has been one of the most storied and well-known regiments in the country. From unusual beginning — founded by the heir to a textile fortune, it was the last privately-raised regiment in the Commonwealth — the PPCLI has earned its reputation as "first in the field."

The regiment has been on the frontline of some of the fiercest battles in Canadian history.

Housed in bases in Edmonton and Shilo, Man., some 2,000 soldiers now make up the Pats.

Using letters, regiment documents and interviews with PPCLI soldiers, CBC News looks at some of the pivotal moments in the regiment’s history: the events, victories and tragedies that have shaped the regiment over the past century.

Founding

The son of a wealthy English family in Montreal, and heir to his father’s massive textile empire, Andrew Hamilton Gault’s fascination with the military began at a young age, when he spent long hours exploring the Canadian wilderness, and learning how to handle a firearm and ride horseback.

Hamilton "Hammie" Gault would get his first real experience with military life in 1901, when he signed on to fight with the Canadian military in South Africa.

By most accounts, Gault’s time in the Boer War was largely uneventful, but it did cement his love of military service.

After an unsuccessful attempt to join the British cavalry, he returned to Canada to marry and help with his father’s business — unaware that in a little over a decade, he would make his mark in the largest, and most costly, conflict the world had yet seen.

'A battalion apart'

When Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada was thrust into the conflict. And what the young nation lacked in military history, it made up for in enthusiasm.

Despite a tiny population, hundreds of thousands of Canadians volunteered for both combat and support roles at home and abroad.

Hamilton Gault and Princess Patricia inspect the newly-formed regiment in Ottawa, prior to the PPCLI's voyage to Europe to fight in the First World War (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

Gault was eager to get involved, and feared that Canada would miss out on an opportunity to step onto the international stage. He wasted no time writing to Ottawa seeking approval to raise a private regiment.

By this time, Gault had considerable wealth. He offered to spend $100,000 — approximately $2 million in 2014 dollars — to recruit, outfit and train the regiment.

His wish was granted, and approval was also given to name the new regiment after the daughter of Canada’s governor general, the Duke of Connaught.

The 28-year-old Princess Patricia was a glamorous and popular royal whose fascination with Canada won many hearts on this side of the Atlantic.

Following just 10 days of recruitment, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry numbered 1,098 soldiers.

From the beginning, the Princess Pats stood out from the other companies of soldiers being recruited at the outset of the war.

Instead of largely untrained volunteers, the first set of soldiers, "the Originals," had valuable combat experience — most had served with the British military. They were, in the words of the regiment’s official history, "prospectors, trappers, guides, cow-punchers, prize-fighters, farmers, professional and business men, above all old soldiers."

Even before entering battle, the regiment was different from other Canadian outfits. On arriving in England, the Pats didn’t train with their countrymen, and instead worked with British forces. One of the regiment’s commanders, Lt. Hugh Niven, wrote years after the war that Gault did not trust Sam Hughes, the Canadian militia minister, and did everything he could to keep the regiment out of the minister's control.

"We were Canadians, but we were different. We did not train with other Canadians in Canada or as a matter of fact did we train with any Canadians in England," Niven wrote.

"We were a battalion apart."

  • "...cow-punchers, prize-fighters, farmers, professional and business men, above all old soldiers."

Hamilton Gault

The Ric-A-Dam-Doo

Of all the traditions and artifacts that tell the Pats’ 100-year history, none is more sacred to the regiment than the camp colours, affectionately known as the Ric-A-Dam-Doo.

At the time of the founding, a regiment’s colours were more practical than just symbolic — in the chaos on the battlefield, soldiers could easily become confused and disoriented. Brandishing the regimental flag was a simple, effective way of rallying infantry to one spot and organizing charges.

The PPCLI’s blood-red colours were sewn by Princess Patricia. It was the beginning of what would be a close, personal connection with the regiment that bore her name.

Over the war years, the princess would frequently inspect the regiment. The Pats were also on hand to march at her wedding in 1919.

No one knows how the flag got the Ric-A-Dam-Doo nickname — it is thought to be based on a Gaelic phrase for "cloth of our mother," although the regiment has never been able to confirm that.

Capt. J.N. Edfar (left) and Capt. C. White (right) display the Ric-A-Dam-Doo. The camp colours were hand-sewn by Princess Patricia, a gift to the regiment that bore her name (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

No matter, the colours became an important part of the regiment’s identity. It’s been immortalized in song, and was carried into battle with an armed escort.

Like the men who fought under the colours in the First World War, the Ric-A-Dam-Doo has spawned its own legends.

One soldiers writes of a battle in France in 1914, where the soldier entrusted with carrying the standard was killed by an artillery shell. Later on in the battle, another PPCLI member was still fighting despite being shot in the head.

Seeing the need for the regiment to regroup, the wounded soldier pulled the colours from the rubble and stood on the edge of the trench, waving the flag wildly while in full view of the enemy. Though the soldier wasn’t hit, a scattering of bullet holes can still be seen on the fabric.

(A less legendary story from a different soldier claims that the bullet holes came from a drunk PPCLI officer firing his service pistol into the air one night in the trenches.)

The original Ric-A-Dam-Doo survived the war and remained in service until 1922. At that time, the fabric had begun to fray and fall apart, so it was replaced with a replica. The original now sits on display in the regimental museum in Calgary, in a glass case underneath a portrait of the woman whose hands sewed it.

  • "...another PPCLI member was still fighting despite being shot in the head."

The First World War

The Patricias shipped out to France in December 1915, becoming some of the first Canadian forces to enter the war directly.

Their first taste of battle came at St. Eloi, a chaotic, costly fight in the mud of northern France. The Allied forces continued through into Belgium, with the Pats taking casualties in the skirmishes along the route.

All of it was just a lead-up to the first real test of the young regiment: a battle where the PPCLI would face an overwhelming challenge. It was one that would come to define the unit and cement its reputation both back at home and abroad.

'Holding up the whole damn line' — Frezenburg, Belgium

In early May, the Patricias were set up in trenches west of Ypres, Belgium — part of a front line made up of French and Canadian soldiers. Raids and gas attacks on either flank of the regiment had forced the Allies back, making it necessary for the PPCLI to pull back or risk being exposed.

Members of the Princess Pats in a trench during the First World War. The young Regiment would make a name for itself at the battle of Frezenberg, where they suffered massive casualties (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

Over a few days, the unit secretly moved to a better position while keeping the illusion of a full force on the line. The ruse worked, although it only bought time. Once the enemy discovered that the trenches had been abandoned, they hit the line hard.

German soldiers swept forward to the PPCLI’s new position and launched a punishing artillery barrage that rained down on the regiment for days — killing many, wounding more and demoralizing the entire regiment.

Both sides knew it was just a precursor to a German attack. On May 7, the night before the battle, Lt.-Col. Agar Adamson wrote a letter to his wife, explaining their dire situation.

"It seems certain that this line cannot be held and we are only making a bluff at it."

The PPCLI, weakened and weary from the artillery barrages, dug in as German forces charged the line. Starting shortly after 9 a.m., enemy forces pelted them with bullets and bombs for nearly 15 hours, causing massive casualties.

Hamilton Gault was severely wounded, forcing him to pass command of the unit off to Adamson, who himself was wounded several hours later. So much of the regiment’s leadership was knocked out that a lieutenant, Hugh Niven, was forced to take command.

With other parts of the line falling back, parts of the Patricia position were left exposed to enemy fire. The soldiers were aware that if the PPCLI were forced back or overrun, it threatened the collapse of the whole line and likely the loss of the city.

In a letter written after the battle, Niven says that the officers urged the soldiers to continue despite the punishing assault.

"I heard Agar Adamson has been hit and Hammie was badly hit and only semi-conscious for the rest of the day. I attended to him frequently and got him propped up by doubling a dead soldier up so he was lengthwise in the trench … Hammie whispered to me ‘next time they come, stand me up, face me the right away and give me my revolver." THAT IS THE PPCLI SPIRIT, that lives to this day."

From the WWI letters

  • Hammie whispered to me 'next time they come, stand me up, face me the right away and give me my revolver.' THAT IS THE PPCLI SPIRIT, that lives to this day. -Lt. Col. Hugh Niven
  • Our stand at Frezenberg was in a way the end of the Originals, but gave us a standing throughout the Army that everyone served to know about. -Lt. Col. Hugh Niven
  • Hughie brought to the Regiment that free Western outlook and individual initiative that makes a good fighting unit. He obeyed the orders he liked and disregarded the ones that to him, didn't make sense. -Unknown author, writing on Lt. Col. Hugh Niven
  • Although rapid fire was directed upon him, and his clothes riddled by bullets, he never faltered in his purpose, and he not only helped to save the situation but also indirectly saved many lives. -Description of Sgt. George Mullin, who won a Victoria Cross for destroying a German pillbox at Passchendale in 1917.
  • Christie was a bear hunter from the Yukon ... He was no 15 round a minute soldier as he only needed one shot and he never wasted a shot in his life. -Lt. Col. Hugh Niven, on Cpl. James Christie
  • Do you remember the gunner who was in bathing when a shell landed int he pong in which he was disporting himself? - Never have I seen a man get away quicker to cover! -Brig.-Gen. Hamilton Gault
  • Do not worry about me. Other fellows with less experience have gone through it and we have at least the advantager of their hand taught knowledge but dear old girl you must not expect letters for several days as we will be entirely on our own. -Lt. Col. Agar Adamson, writing to his wife.
  • In some places the water is two inches over your knee and there seems to be no place to drain it to. The Engineers have gicen up. We have rubber boots but not enough to go around. -Lt. Col. Agar Adamson, on life in the trenches.
  • During these past four and a half years of war, the Battalion has ever carried out its durty faithfully; in defence, invincible; in attack, supreme. -Brig.-Gen. Hamilton Gault, in his final order of the day at the end of the First World War.

The regiment fought until just before midnight before being relieved by British soldiers. Despite the overwhelming attack, the PPCLI held Frezenberg Ridge and thwarted the German attack.

But it was a costly victory — the unit of 700 men had been whittled down to only 150 who were left in any shape to fight. As well, most of its leadership were severely wounded.

But it cemented the regiment’s reputation as a capable force that succeeded in tough battles. It also drew the attention of the international press, with the New York Times and other newspapers regularly reporting on the Patricias exploits throughout the rest of the war.

The phrase "holding up the whole damn line" became one of the unofficial mottos for the regiment and is still used to this day.

The regiment was given time to recover, and was reinforced by the University Companies from McGill before returning to the battlefield. While the regiment would go on to join Canadian forces in other major battles, such as at the Somme and Passchendaele, it is the Battle of Frezenberg that is considered to be the most important and revered engagement in the PPCLI’s 100-year history.

  • "...next time they come, stand me up, face me the right away and give me my revolver."

Frezenberg

WWII

When the Pats landed on Sicilian shores in July 1943 as part of the Allied push into German-controlled Europe, they began what would be a brutal and punishing march that met Axis resistance every step of the way.

Enemy troops were not the only danger: unforgiving terrain, extreme temperatures and crippling disease took their toll on the regiment.

One of the costliest battles the PPCLI faced was also one of the first: a desperate rescue mission into the heavily-defended cliff-side town of Leonforte.

PPCLI members pass an Allied tank as they march along the Moro River in Italy during the Second World War. After Italy, the regiment would move up to northern Europe and into Holland (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

'All the kid stuff is gone' — Leonforte, Italy

The prospect of an attack on Leonforte was not a promising one. The hillside town's tall stone buildings sat together along narrow, winding streets. Every house was a possible ambush site, every corner a potential death trap.

The only entrance was a destroyed bridge at the end of a long switchback road, which gave the German defenders a clear shot at anyone approaching the town. The regiment’s historian notes that the town’s "narrow twisty streets afforded every facility for street fighting and dispersed defence."

Command ordered a full-scale armoured attack on Leonforte. But with the bridge destroyed, Allied tanks had no way into the town. Instead, soldiers from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment were then ordered to take control of the far side of the river to allow engineers to repair the bridge and send tanks across.

The Edmonton assault was successful at first, but Axis forces soon hit back hard. Machine guns and mortars from the building roofs rained down on the Canadians. As night fell, the 2nd Brigade lost contact with the Loyal Edmonton soldiers. Commanders thought that the entire regiment was lost. At least, until a 10-year-old Italian boy rushed in with word that the Loyal Edmonton’s: 100 troops were trapped in the middle of the town and in dire need of help.

While trapped, the regiment’s assault bought enough time for the bridge to be repaired. A daring rescue plan was hatched — a "flying column" of PPCLI soldiers and tank support would charge into town in full daylight to surprise the German defenders.

Sherman tanks and anti-armour guns roared across the makeshift bridge, with PPCLI members hanging off the sides of the machines and clinging to the cannons as they charged into Leonforte. The Pats made it across the makeshift bridge so quickly that they only suffered a single casualty, despite heavy fire from the Germans.

The situation was much more difficult once they got into the streets of Leonforte. Up until this point, the few times that the regiment had gone up against the Germans, it had been in short skirmishes. Nothing like the fierce, exhausting trail they faced in the streets of Leonforte.

"All of a sudden, zap, that wasn’t the case anymore," PPCLI Cpl. Felix Carriere would later say about the battle.

"You’re in the centre of a street and there’s nothing but fire flies running by and these are tracer bullets flying by."

The initial push was a success, overwhelming the German defenders. It wasn’t long before the battle devolved into bitter house-to-house fighting. Soldiers moved from room to room, clearing out the defenders in a slog through the streets of Leonforte.

Within an hour, the PPCLI had fought their way to the centre of town, locating the Loyal Edmonton soldiers and bringing them back into the fold.

The Pats then turned their attention north, battling their way to the train station the Germans held on the edge of the town. There they met the rest of the German forces and armour. The two sides engaged in a pitched battle that ultimately ended with the Canadians taking control of the train station.

2nd Brigade had secured the town within hours. But the the work was not done. The Pats still had hours of hard fighting ahead of them to dislodge the German forces from two high hills on either side of Leonforte.

It was the first taste of real battle for the regiment, unlike anything they had seen in Sicily before. For the PPCLI soldiers like Cpl. Carriere, it prepared them for the deadly years the Pats would face in Italy.

"The soldier finds a way to accept this and finds a way to be careful and in no time he is considered a battle veteran.

All you have to do is go through one good strong battle….All the kid stuff is gone."

World War II saw the regiment continue the tragic reputation for heavy losses that it experienced in the earlier Great War. By the time of the final surrender by the Axis forces in 1945, over 1,000 of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry were killed in battle.

  • "All you have to do is go through one good strong battle….All the kid stuff is gone."

Leonforte

The Korean War

Just five years after the end of the Second World War, the world was weary of another armed conflict. But the Korean Peninsula, split and unstable in the wake of the war, saw tensions rise along the 38th parallel.

After the fall of Japan in WWII, the Soviet Union and the United States took administration of the North and South halves of the peninsula. It was an uneasy peace that did not last long.

In June of 1950, hundreds of thousands of North Korean and Chinese Communist troops poured south. The Korean War had begun.

In a few months, Northern forces pushed South Korean forces back into a tiny sliver of the country. The South Koreans were saved from total defeat when UN soldiers, including the Patricias, joined the fight and pushed the front lines north.

'They just keep coming' — Kapyong, Korea

In late April 1951, the PPCLI set up alongside Australian troops overlooking the Kapyong River.

The valley was the only thing separating the South Korean capital of Seoul from thousands of advancing Chinese soldiers. Among the PPCLI soldiers perched on the hill was Capt. Hub Grey.

A painting that depicts the battle of Kapyong, Korea. The PPCLI’s fierce defence, in the face of thousands of Chinese soldiers, would earn the 2nd battalion the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

"The PPCLI, the Second Battalion, at that time was established with 934 men. We were just 700, the replacements just weren't coming through. And we were attacked by a regiment of 10,000 Chinese men," said Grey.

The Pats set up on Hill 667, on the edge of the valley. They scrambled to get their defences ready in time. The Chinese army had already torn through a weak South Korean line, before taking on the Australians, who had set up on another hill nearby.

After days of fighting, the Australians had to retreat. Luckily, the strong resistance bought the PPCLI precious hours to get ready for the wave of enemy soldiers that soon rushed up the hill.

"They would have 30 to 50 men in a row. Then 30 metres behind, another and another and another… the Chinese casualties in Korea were horrendous compared to ours.

"They just kept coming."

Artillery from New Zealand and the U.S. helped slow the advance of the enemy.

Several times over the two-day battle, one of the PPCLI officers, Capt. J.G.W. Mills, had his position overrun by Chinese soldiers. As the firefight turned into hand-to-hand combat, Mills called down artillery strikes on his own position to clear out the Chinese advance.

Telling his men to take cover before calling in the guns, the desperate measure kept his position from being overrun.

The Chinese assaults slowed on the second day, although the Patricias faced a new danger. Parts of the enemy forces had slipped south of Hill 667, blockading the roads and cutting off supplies to the Canadians.

Low on food, ammunition and medical supplies, American planes air-dropped emergency supplies onto the hill.

Even that was dangerous. Grey recalls PPCLI soldiers having to dodge large crates of food and ammo "crashing down" like bombs. But the supplies kept the Pats in the fight.

The Chinese forces, on the other hand, were suffering. While only 10 PPCLI members had been killed in the fighting, hundreds of Chinese soldiers were dead. The enemy attacks slowed to a trickle. Finally, after three days of bloody battle, the Chinese forces withdrew to the other side of the valley.

For their impressive stand, the PPCLI 2nd Battalion and the Australian Regiment were awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for "outstanding heroism and exceptionally meritorious conduct."

The regiment is one of the few non-American groups to be awarded the citation. It was also the first time it went to a Canadian regiment. To this day, the PPCLI battalion still wears the subtle blue bar on their uniform sleeve to signify the citation.

For those who took part in the battle, there are more troubling reminders of what happened. The fierce fighting and sheer number of people killed in that valley weighed heavily on the minds of the soldiers who took part.

"We killed over 400 people. As you get older, those things start to bear on you," says Grey. "You have a certain guilt at times. And in a way, it’s like the enemy is getting their vengeance."

  • "Frankly, we just released a curtain of death."

Kapyong

Afghanistan

Following the Korean War, Canada’s military shifted from a combat role to a peacekeeping focus. Over the decades, the Pats were dropped into tense conflicts in more than a dozen countries — Cyprus, Bosnia, Rwanda and Croatia among them.

Following the attacks on New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and the beginning of the battle in Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers were once again thrust into combat.

Soldiers from the regiment were sent into Afghanistan in early 2002, working closely with American soldiers to root out Taliban fighters in the rugged mountains on the eastern border of the country.

It would be months into the Patricia’s deployment before the regiment saw its first fatalities. In a shocking incident four Patricias were killed, not at the hands of the enemy, but from their allies.

The Pat soldiers unload supplies from a military helicopter in Afghanistan. (PPCLI Archive and Museum).

'All I could see was darkness...' — Tarnak Farm, Afghanistan

On the night of April 17, 2002, soldiers from 3rd Battalion PPCLI were training at Tarnak Farm, a former Taliban firing range outside of Kandahar that had been captured by NATO forces.

Unknown to the Pats, two American F-16s flew overhead. The pilots of the fighters were exhausted after finishing a 10-hour flight. One of the pilots, U.S. Major Harry Schmidt, saw the flashes of firing on the training ground below and thought they were the enemy firing on the two aircraft.

Schmidt requested permission to fire his plane’s 20 mm cannons (what he would later call a "warning shot"). Flight control denied the request, telling Schmidt to "stand by." Later, he was told to "hold fire."

Four seconds later, Schmidt radioed that he was taking action to defend himself. He then dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb onto the PPCLI forces.

PPCLI Sgt. Lorne Ford, who was on the grounds at Tarnak Farm, told the CBC in 2006: "At that time, I heard the scream of a jet. I saw a jet, didn’t know what it was. I looked up into the sky.

"Not more than three seconds later I heard the screaming of the bomb itself."

Although he could hear it, Ford couldn’t see where the bomb was. Until it detonated.

"Before I could get one sentence out of my mouth, the bomb impacted on the ground," he recalled.

"The force of the blast was like nothing I have experienced before. The heat. The light. The force just knocking me back was incredible."

Ford was thrown back, taking shrapnel to his arm and his left leg, and injuring an eye.

Seven other Pats were wounded. Four PPCLI members fared worse: Sgt. Marc D. Leger, Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, Pte. Richard Green and Pte. Nathan Smith were killed by the bomb.

1 2

"I couldn’t see anybody. All I could see was darkness and more or less the ground in front of me," Lorne said.

They didn’t know if the plane was coming around again."

Later the regiment learned that the bomb was dropped by an American pilot.

The deaths shocked both the Princess Pats and Canadians back home. These were the first combat deaths that the Canadian Forces had seen since the Korean War.

Surprise would turn to anger for many, when more details of the incident emerged. A Canadian inquiry determined that the weapons the PPCLI were training with posed no danger to the aircraft.

Schmidt apologized to the wounded soldiers, saying that he acted in what he thought was self-defence. He and the other pilot were charged with negligent manslaughter and aggravated assault, although many of the counts were eventually dropped.

In the end, Schmidt was found guilty of dereliction of duty and was fined.

"Blame’s too hard of a word," Ford said four years after the bombing. "Mistakes happen, it was a mistake, I have no doubt of that. It was a bad mistake."

The PPCLI would spend another decade in Afghanistan, both in combat and training local security forces.

Still, the Tarnak Farm incident remains one of the defining moments of the PPCLI’s time in the country. And it served as a shocking reminder of the dangers of war for a country that had long forgotten the tragedies that go along with it.

  • "...the bomb impacted on the ground ... The heat. The light. The force just knocking me back was incredible."